“Thousand league snowshoes?” Rose looked doubtfully at the rickety brown snowshoes on the merchant’s blanket. The leather bindings were cracked and the wood frame scratched and dirty. Next to them were a pair of glittering silver ice skates that looked in such better shape she wondered why he was bothering with the snowshoes at all.
The old man stroked his snowy white beard. “Trust me. You’re too young for the skates.”
“Who says?” Rose put her hands on her hips. She was ten years old and had been skating since she could walk. No one was going to tell her she was too young for a silly pair of skates.
“Are you ready to find your true love?”
Rose frowned. “Boys are stupid.”
“Then I think you should buy the snowshoes.”
Rose cocked her head and looked around the Winter fair. Out on the lake her parents and sister were ice-skating. They had asked her to join them but Rose wanted to go shopping more. All that going in a circle around a lake she skated on every weekend anyway wasn’t very interesting. At least the merchants who came to the fair had stories to tell of faraway places. Her parents had given her three pence with which she’d intended to buy roasted chestnuts and a rag doll from the gypsy lady in the hopes of getting a peek inside her brightly painted wagon. The snowshoes would take all her money.
“They really work?”
The merchant nodded. “Three pence and a wish. Take it or leave it.”
“What sort of wish?” Rose had read enough fairy tales to know that wishing could be dangerous.
“Any wish will do. You have more than you could ever fulfill,” the old man said.
“Shouldn’t it be my heart’s desire or something? Isn’t that usually what a hero gives up for a magical item?” Rose asked.
The merchant looked around then leaned a little closer, as if imparting some great secret. “A dream, even if totally ridiculous and unachievable, is important. It doesn’t matter how silly they are. It only matters that you have them.”
Rose thought for a minute. She tried to think of a wish she didn’t mind parting with. She had a lot of them. Most of them she wanted to keep. But she wanted the snowshoes more. A wish may or may not ever happen but the shoes were tangible. Still, Rose found herself hesitating. What if she gave up something really important? What if she gave up the one wish that could change her destiny or make her special someday? Maybe it was her dreams that made her special? But parting with just one couldn’t hurt.
“How do I give you a wish?”
The old man nodded and pulled a cobalt blue glass vial from his sheepskin coat. The stopper was clear glass with gold flecks in it. Rose had never seen anything like it before. It looked like a perfume bottle belonging to the princess.
“Whisper your wish into the bottle and when you’re done put the stopper back. You must start with the words ‘I wish’ for it to work. When you’re done you won’t even know what you wished for. You’ll never miss it.”
“What do you do with the wishes?” Rose asked.
“How do you think I make all these fine products?” He swept a gnarled hand over the blanket and the magical wares spread out on it.
Rose took the vial from him. She pulled the stopper off the bottle and couldn’t help sniffing the vial just in case it was perfumed. All she smelled were the roasting chestnuts a few stalls away and a whiff of horse.
She held the bottle to her mouth. What wish should she give him? Sometimes she wished she would be captured by elves. Sometimes she wished she had a little sister who she was sure would be a lot funner than her big sister who, for the last year, had only cared about boys. Maybe the wish about getting to be a princess. That was one of the more unlikely ones.
At last Rose settled on a wish that she could part with. She inhaled the brisk air, feeling it bite her nose, then whispered into the bottle.
“Put the stopper on quickly,” said the merchant.
Rose finished and put the glass stopper back with a crystal tinkle. She looked at the bottle. Inside, just barely visible in the bright sunlight, was a little glowing orb. It looked like the fireflies she chased in summer. The glow bobbed up and down in the vial. Had that really come out of her? She couldn’t remember what wish she’d made even though the words had just left her mouth.
“Oh, that’s a nice one, very fanciful,” the old man said. He reached for the vial and snatched it from Rose’s hand. “Now, three pence more and the shoes are yours.”
Rose nodded. She was a little sorry the wish was gone, and just before he grabbed the bottle, Rose had the urge to take her wish and run. She was glad he took it so quickly, before she could chicken out because the thousand league snowshoes were the first step in one of her grander wishes.
She dug in her coat pocket and pulled out the three small coins. She set them on the blanket and took her purchase. Shoes in hand, Rose started running before the merchant could change his mind.
Behind her she heard the old man yelling. It sounded like a warning. Something about letting the shoes rest. Rose couldn’t be sure. She was too afraid the old man would change his mind and decide she wasn’t worthy of them.
She crossed one snowy hill, then another. The fair retreated behind her, the music of the band playing beside the lake faded away. She wanted to make sure her parents and sister were out of sight. If they knew what she was up to they’d never let her keep the snowshoes.
Once in the woods Rose stopped. She sat on a snow bank and tied the wood-framed snowshoes over her boots. Rose stood up. At least they worked as ordinary snowshoes. She didn’t sink into the snow at all. The balance was strange, the large surface of the wicker frame meant she had to walk bowlegged. They obviously weren’t child size. But maybe one size fit all where magic snowshoes were concerned.
Rose faced north.
The direction her goal lay. Ever since she was a little girl she had heard stories of the Snow Queen. Every year there were more stories. When people disappeared in the woods, the Snow Queen had taken them. When the blizzards howled and tore out of the north the Snow Queen was angry. The beautiful frost on the windows every morning was painted by the Queen. They said her heart was made of ice and she was cold as the winter that was her domain. But she was also beautiful and renewed the earth in winter. Letting the animals rest and laying down the snows that fed the lakes and streams in springtime.
To the far north, at the top of the world, was her palace of ice. She slept during the other months, until her season came again, like a bear but in reverse.
Rose would go to the North Pole and see if she could find the palace of the Snow Queen. She would see the aurora borealis, which she had heard were dancing green lights in the sky, and she would meet a valiant polar bear, servants of the Snow Queen. And she would, at last, have an adventure.
With a deep inhale Rose took a tiny half step forward.
The world whooshed past in a blur of white and gray. Wind blew Rose’s hair back and she felt her cap lift off and fly away. The wind pulled the breath from her lungs and the air was moving too fast for Rose to take another.
Then she stopped. The wind died and there was silence in her ringing ears. She felt the sting of windburn on her cheeks and she sucked in the air she’d been deprived of during travel. Rose blinked and looked around. Where was she? How far had she come? How had she not hit a tree and died?
Thick silent black trees rose around her. Their bare branches laced the sky over head. In the distance she saw a stone parapet. The castle. She had come six miles in half a step.
A slow smile pulled the corners of her mouth. The snowshoes worked. She hadn’t traded all her money and a wish away for nothing. She would have given away a dozen lesser dreams away for the shoes. Though she was glad she hadn’t had to.
Rose took a deep breath of sharp cold air and took a full stride in her snowshoes. Now that she knew they worked she could make it to the North Pole.
The rush of wind numbed her face and Rose felt a dizzy lurch in her stomach. She kept walking for as long as she could hold her breath. Every step felt like she was walking through a windstorm, on the verge of being knocked over, but she never was. The need for air forced her to stop after five steps.
Rose reeled with the sudden loss of the pushing wind and she dropped to her knees. Panting hard, Rose looked around. She was on a snowy plain. Patches of brown grass and lichen covered rocks poked through pristine white drifts. In the distance she saw a herd of reindeer.
Rose clapped her frozen hands together. She was getting closer to the pole. She pulled her wool mittens from her coat pocket and put them on. Then she wrapped her scarf around her head and tied it tight. Another step or two and she’d be there.
When her heart stopped pounding and she had all the air she needed, Rose steeled herself and pushed on a few more steps.
The shrill screaming wind died when she took the final step. Rose cracked open her eyes, near stuck shut with frozen tears. Snow and ice surrounded her for miles and miles. Hills and shelves of snow, strange pointed formations of ice broke through, carved by wind and storm. The sky above was twilight blue, as if the sun had just set.
Where was the Snow Queen’s palace? Where was the Aurora? Maybe she needed to take another step. She might not be at the North Pole yet.
But what happened if she overshot? Rose chewed her lower lip. She could turn around and go home, try a few more steps north, or take the shoes off and look around a little. Rose wondered if she could shoot straight past the top of the world and end up on the other side.
Maybe just another half step. Rose put one cautious foot in front of the other.
She tried again with the bigger step. Still nothing. Her heart beat quick and anxious. What had the old man said as she ran away with the snowshoes? Something about resting. Did he mean the shoes? Had she used up all the magic? Fear climbed her spine and she shivered.
How long would she be here? There was no food. No shelter. The frigid chill was seeping through her warmest coat already and she’d only been standing there a minute.
Rose turned to look around. There had to be someone out there. Or something she could do to keep warm until the shoes could take her home.
In the gloomy distance Rose saw a shape rise up from behind a jagged spike of ice.
“Hello!” She yelled and waved her arms. Relief sent a surge of warmth and hope through her. She wasn’t entirely alone.
The figure raised an arm then dropped out of sight behind the ice. Rose bounced on her knees to keep her blood moving and waited.
A second later, a big, hunched, four-legged silhouette emerged from behind the ice.
A polar bear. Rose had always wanted to meet the Snow Queen’s special guards but primal terror struck her through the chest. The bear was so big. Bigger than the brown bears of the forest at home. And he was a guard, a ferocious warrior. What if he had been told to eat visitors? Panic forced her feet into action. She tried to run but the snowshoes tangled and she fell into the hard crust of snow.
Rose looked over her shoulder. There was no time to get up. The bear was on her; its ground-eating stride closed the distance instantly.
Snow crunched under paws bigger than her mother’s fanciest dinner plates. The bear’s black eyes regarded her with an expression she couldn’t make out
The bear stopped a few feet away and sniffed loudly. Great clouds of steam puffed from his nostrils.
Rose never imagined polar bears to be so big. She had seen paintings of the great white bears stalking through green-blue icescapes but the paintings had no scale. He was taller than she was at the shoulder and standing up he must be a mountain.
“What is a tiny hunter doing here?” the bear snarled.
Rose’s mouth fell open but no sound came out. A wheezy little breath squeezed out in a puff of steam but that was all.
“I am one of the Snow Queen’s guards. You should answer me.”
Rose said, “I’m not a hunter.”
The bear lowered his head to look her in the eye. “All your kind are hunters. What are you doing here?”
She had to think of a good answer fast but her thoughts felt like they were trudging through thick mud. “I, uh, I have come to pay homage to the Snow Queen.” It sounded fancier than ‘see’ and maybe the bear would be impressed on behalf of his mistress.
The bear pulled back. He stood up and Rose’s heart clenched to a stop. He was so, so tall, he would fall on her, all teeth and claws and swift death. She squeezed her eyes shut around tears that froze as soon as they formed.
A great roar killed the arctic silence and Rose was sure this was the end. She waited to die. And waited. And then she opened one eye. The bear stood there and cocked his head as an answering roar came from the distance.
“My Captain is on his way. He will decide if I eat you or not.”
Rose gulped. “Please Sir Bear, I only wished to see her Majesty the Queen and pay my respects.”
“No. You must be a spy. Why else come when the Snow Queen is abroad?”
“Abroad.” Rose echoed. Of course. She had been so dumb. Her hands balled into fists inside her mittens. It was winter. The Snow Queen was traveling all the winter-bound world right now, overseeing her season. She had traded a wish for nothing. The snowshoes would only ever work in winter when the Snow Queen wasn’t home.
A bitter taste burned the back of her throat. Now she was to be eaten by polar bears, never to return home.
Before Rose could sincerely start to cry another polar bear arrived. He was bigger than the first one and a golden chain hung around his neck.
“What have you found Skoavdi?”
“A tiny hunter who is full of lies. I request permission to eat her.”
The Captain stood beside his junior and looked Rose over carefully.
She sniffled loudly. “Go ahead and eat me. I’m an idiot.”
The Captain turned to Skoavdi. “This is not a tiny hunter, but one of their cubs. A child.”
“But she said she is here to pay homage to the Queen when everyone knows the Queen is out of her Palace during the winter.”
“See, I told you I was an idiot! I traded a wish for thousand league snowshoes so I could see the Snow Queen and I was too busy to remember she’s gone and now I’m stuck here because I didn’t listen to the old man and the shoes quit working and I think they have to rest before the magic will work and I’m going to freeze to death anyway!” After such a long speech she took a deep breath and burst into tears.
“Skoavdi, you are forbidden to eat this cub.”
“Why?” the bear protested.
“What is your name, cub?”
“R-R-Rose,” she coughed out her name, her throat gone raw from the freezing cold sobs.
“All bears are forbidden to eat the cub Rose. Now go. Tell the others.”
Skoavdi snorted and growled but he turned and left without another word to his captain.
The Captain bear sat down next to Rose and patted her on the back with a paw bigger than her head. “I believe you.”
Her sobs weakened and Rose wiped her stiff and frozen face with her mittens. The wool only hurt more, so she stopped that too.
“I’m sorry,” Rose said. “Thank you for not eating me.”
The bear nodded his massive head. “I’m sure Her Majesty would be grateful for your homage. What did you bring her?”
A good question. She had nothing of value on her except the shoes. Skoavdi was right, she was a liar. Then she remembered what the old merchant, who had to be a rather mediocre wizard of some kind, had said. All wishes had power.
“I was going to give her a wish. Maybe not a big one, but a pretty big one.”
“Very good,” said the Captain. “We bears have no wishes, for we have everything we need, so her majesty would appreciate such potent magic.”
Relief flooded Rose and she let herself sag against the bear’s soft dense white fur.
“But you have miscalculated.”
“I know,” Rose said. “I wanted to see the Snow Queen so badly I forgot she was gone, and the snowshoes will only work in winter.”
The bear huffed, steam puffing from his black nostrils. He scratched his flank and said, “I believe we can make a deal.”
“Yes! Anything!” Rose agreed. She really was grateful for not being eaten but didn’t feel she’d expressed it properly.
“I can send you home as long as you promise to return.”
“All right. But what good is that? “
“To celebrate the first snow fall of the year the Snow Queen throws a fête. You can come then, next year, and give her your wish. I have told the guard they may not eat you, so you need not fear.”
Rose jumped up, and stood before the bear. Even sitting he was taller than her mother. She looked up, into his deep dark eyes and saluted. “Yes I promise! Um… Sir…”
“I promise Captain Baldu, to return in one year. And I’ll have a whole year to come up with a really big wish too.”
The bear nodded and Rose thought she caught a twinkle of amusement in his eye.
They regarded each other a moment and Rose was glad she’d come. Her fear had not quite worn off, but that was part of adventure too. To face scary things and either come out alive or die. She hadn’t realized when she’d set out quite how terrifying an adventure could be and she’d definitely consider them more carefully in the future.
Baldu smiled, showing ivory fangs bigger than any Rose had ever seen. “Tickle my nose with your woolen mittens.”
After a second Rose reached out and lightly ran her mittens under the bear’s moist leathery nose. She was a little nervous to put her hand so close to teeth so large, but she believed Captain Baldu because he had believed her and they’d made a promise together which was also magic of a sort.
His muzzle wrinkled and he inhaled, then inhaled again, and again. Then the bear’s breath exploded all at once in the loudest sneeze Rose had ever heard.
The wind of the sneeze picked her up and blew her away.
Rose was carried on the sneeze like a leaf blown by autumn winds. She tumbled and lifted, dipped and turned. Below she caught glimpses of the landscape rushing past. Snow and dry grass, trees and mountains.
She began to slow as the familiar walls of the royal palace came into the view. Rose sailed over the turrets and towers too fast to make out much detail.
Slower and slower she went. She recognized the fields and glens of her home. Lower and lower Rose went until her feet touched down by the frozen lake side were her family was still skating.
“Rose, is that what you spent your money on?” Her sister skated over to Rose and stopped a few feet away. She pointed at the snowshoes and giggled.
Rose quickly sat down and untied the snowshoes from her boots. She wasn’t ready for another adventure just yet. She looked around, never so happy to see her sister’s rosy face, or the fair or the familiar town beyond. The tree tops and the lake. The church tower and the grey sky felt welcoming. Not that she would trade her small adventure gone wrong for anything in the world. Especially after meeting such a gentleman bear. But she was relieved beyond words that she hadn’t been eaten or frozen to death.
“Why snowshoes?” her sister persisted.
“For snow,” Rose said and rolled her eyes as if that were the most obvious thing in the world.
“Well, I would have bought those pretty skates.”
Rose shook her head. “The snowshoes are adventure enough.”
Her sister rubbed Rose’s head, ruffling her hair and Rose batted her hand away. “You’re so weird. You just spent all your money didn’t you?”
“And then some.”